A note from the Field Marshal

Back when the Internet was very young and I was still working at the International Herald Tribune (which no longer exists, sadly), we only had one computer in the newsroom that was connected to this new marvelous invention. The concept of interactivity was new and fun, and we were all agog at even the most basic web sites (which was pretty much all there was back then). One offered a quick 10-question quiz and would then spit back the career to which the responder was most suited, in large block letters filling the screen. We all gathered around and took turns – “teacher”, “librarian”, “doctor”, the machine spit back, offering the same mundane responses to enough different people that we were pretty sure they were just on a loop somewhere. Then it was my turn. I answered the questions, the computer went searching for a few minutes, a small crowd of us waited, and then practically fell over laughing when the words “field marshal” filled the screen. Various other coworkers tried the quiz after that, but none came up with a similar career suggestion.

My colleagues at various places over the years have seen me as a leader, someone who speaks her mind, someone who probably complains too much but someone who, at the end of the day, is pretty competent and will get the job done. Some of them liked me, some of them despised me, but no one was without an opinion on the subject. My bosses have seen me as a complainer, a fomenter of revolution, and yes, someone who is pretty competent and will get the job done. Most of them were relieved when I moved on to another job and left them in peace. Most of them would probably liked to have fired me but very few were courageous enough to actually do it.

Which brings me to my current situation, which is a strange middle ground of being the boss of a few, the employee of many (my owners) and serving at the pleasure of an entity called France Galop, which is the governing body of horse racing. As a licensed public trainer, I am the master of my ship, the owner of my own business. Sort of. But France Galop sets the rules, and they give out the licenses. Which they can also take away if they so choose. And this is why most trainers walk softly and skip the big stick. One has to be careful of what one says, not to run afoul of the Powers that Be. The Powers that Be also fund most of the racing media – Paris Turf, the daily racing newspaper, and Equidia, the racing television channel, depend on France Galop for funding. Consequently, they are usually not the bearer of bad news – or certainly not anything bad when it comes to France Galop.

I’ve had no problem with France Galop, per se, since I started training. I got very good scores on the exams to pass the license, I’ve never broken the rules, my horses never fail a drug test and I pretty much keep my head down. But as anyone who knows me knows, I just can’t keep quiet if there is something that is bothering me that I think can be fixed. And right now at France Galop, there is quite a lot that needs to be fixed. As I write this, racing at my home track in Maisons-Laffitte has been canceled for the day because of a strike by track workers. This followed news last night that France Galop plans to close our track for good as part of budget cuts. The problem is, at the same time France Galop wants to spend 160 million euros to renovate Longchamp, in the guise of buffing up France’s international image.

Longchamp is filled to capacity for only one day a year: The day of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The rest of the time, the place is practically empty – like most racecourses in France, which is another problem. The nationwide betting handle has gone up for years and now has stabilized, but on-track attendance has plummeted. There are plenty of reasons for this – it’s easier to bet at home online, for one, and Equidia does such a good job with covering the racing that you can see more at home than you can at the track, too. Going racing isn’t very attractive when you can’t see what’s going on, there aren’t enough windows open to get a bet on if you wanted to and – most importantly, if you ask me – there’s nothing decent to eat. Despite all this, though, betting is still very strong in this country. It did edge down just slightly in the past year, which is causing the wholesale panic at the PMU national betting monopoly and at France Galop, which is funded by the PMU.

The situation reminds me very much of the plight of newspapers when the Internet was born. Owning a newspaper used to be a license to print money along with the latest gossip. But then the Internet came, and all of a sudden profits stabilized, and then they started to drop. And then the panic began. Newspaper dynasties thrashed about looking for the next profit stream. They sponsored conferences, they developed web sites, then tried to make people pay for the web sites, all the while cutting the budget nonstop – from the bottom, where the core of their product was produced.

France Galop seems to be doing the same thing. In closing Maisons-Laffitte to help pay for Longchamp, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. At the same time, they’re spending money on absolutely ridiculous ventures like sponsoring a race meeting in China that turned out to be nothing more than a hastily put-together party in some Mongolian corn field with horses that Coolmore considered castoffs and so could be sacrificed for the one-way trip to Neverland. There has been no disclosure on just how much this little venture cost.

France Galop also has decided that recruiting new owners is a priority. The ethics of this decision astound me. If the governing body of French racing is recruiting owners, to which trainers will they send them? Since they have decided to close the track at Maisons-Laffitte and seem to have a similar disregard for the training center here, I can’t imagine I’ll need to sit by the phone and wait for owners sent by France Galop to ring up.

There are two departments within France Galop that are, ostensibly, there to help new owners and take care of existing ones. I don’t know what the budget of either of these departments is, but I DO know that I’ve tried to solicit their help on various occasions with getting new owners approved and through the dreaded “dossier” process, and not once have I had any luck. I called the famous “departement des proprietaires” three weeks ago with a question on the owner application process. No one could answer the question, but they took my name and number and promised to call back. Still waiting.

And let’s not even get started on the famous FRBC, or French Racing and Breeding Commission, which, according to its mission statement, “is to provide you with information on racing and breeding in France.” I don’t know what their budget is, either, but I do know that their primary role seems to be to send attractive young ladies in very short skirts to man a table at French sales and hand out hats. At one such sale, I had a prospective owner with me who was very keen to get started. I went to the FRBC table. “This man would like to be an owner. Could you please sign him up?” “Ah, mais non,” came the reply. “That’s France Galop. It has nothing to do with us.” Ah. I see. Nice hat, though.

While France Galop ponders its role in looking for new owners, I’ve personally deposited the “dossiers” of more than a dozen new owners in the past five years. They have all been for non-French owners, and each one has been an ordeal of paperwork that I have had to fill out and explain to new owners, trying all the time not to discourage them with all the ridiculous formality. Instead, I should be able to pick up the phone to the famous “owners’ department,” tell them that Mr. X wants to own a horse with me and THEY should take care of the rest. As it is, you can’t even get them to answer the phone.

It seems, rather, that France Galop is living in a fantasy world, where a fairy godmother is going to wave a magic wand and Longchamp will be filled to capacity every day it has race meetings. Rich owners trailing money will send top-class horses to fill the stables of the big trainers in Chantilly. Syndicates, English-style, will take up the rest, sending second-tier horses to only slightly smaller trainers. In this fantasy world, there are no bad horses, small trainers or small owners. Only the biggest and best will do. The only trouble is, the inhabitants of the Ivory Tower in Boulogne have forgotten that horse racing is actually a pyramid, and without the base, the pyramid collapses. There are very few Group 1 horses in the world, and very few owners who can afford them. There are, though, plenty of less-talented animals, and those are the ones who fill the cards and keep the PMU money coming, because bettors love big fields. A four-runner Group 1 race at Longchamp doesn’t bring in a fraction of what a 20-runner handicap at St. Cloud will provide.

I’m not sure where the action in Maisons-Laffitte today will lead, but it does seem to be the opening salvo in a much-needed revolution. Being a foreigner and serving at the pleasure of the King, I’m not sure what role I might get to play in this conflict. But if the chance arises, perhaps I can once again try to live up to my job description.

11 Replies to “A note from the Field Marshal”

  1. Dear GallopFrance
    I agree with nearly everything you say including the FRBC who seem to direct owners to a few young male trainers who successfully flirt and whatever else with the mini skirted bimbos they employ.
    France Galop are elitist and hand in hand with the equally elitist Arqana sales company definitely try to discourage the lower echelon of owners, trainers and horses. The syndicate registration system us also tricky as I believe every shareholder must have an approved owner dossier in his own right ( a nightmare as you point out)
    I do however question if we really need so many tracks in Paris?
    Would it make a huge difference if longchamp had more meetings and we lost maisons lafitte?
    I feel there is a desperate need for more conveniently situated sand tracks ( what is the point of pornichet that is near no one?????!!** ) maybe one at evreux?? Sand in longchamp is planned ?

    Discuss …

  2. Hey Jennifer! I agree that the Paris-area tracks could be better scheduled, and maybe there is room for consolidation. But losing a racecourse – any racecourse – never bodes well for the future of the sport. I also think that closing the track in Maisons-Laffitte would be the first nail in the coffin for the training center, as well, and I obviously have pretty strong feelings about that! Agree that Pornichet sits at the very end of the world and makes very little sense. Racing should be concentrated in the corridor between Paris and Deauville – where the actual HORSES are.

  3. I actually disagree. I think there are a huge amount of tracks in France that are used just a few times a year which should be closed and the remaining ones chosen by their useful locations should be upgraded. I understand France Galop cutting down on travelling expenses for horses to encourage them to run nearer home.
    Also I think the greve today was wrong. Poor trainers had travelled from uk to run and bully boy tactics are never constructive.
    Not sure about them closing training centre in maisons lafitte. The elite of chantilly wouldn’t want the poor relations on their hallowed turf ( only joking)!

  4. French Racing has a great pool betting system,that is the envy of other European racing countries.It’s just as well; as in other areas of management and organisation of Racing, France Galop: as Gina mentioned; seems to be sadly lacking.

    Not sure what France Galop has been doing for the past few years; to attract new trainers to Maisons Laffitte. Not much it would appear. Don’t forget this is the same France Galop; who some 20 years ago unaminously voted to shut down Chantilly’s racecourse and only local hostility and a letter from the Aga Khan saved the day.

  5. As I understand it,it would save paperwork,tax and maybe training fees to have the horse stationed just over the border in Germany.The only negative would be the loss of travel subsidy.

  6. Having witnessed your performance in last winters guerre des brouettes (Mediterranean campaign),I can recommend to the powers that be that field marshal is the minimum rank that should be offered to you in any imminent conflict. P.s if you have a need for a rear gunner, I’m sure young Duern will oblige !

  7. As an advocate of racecourse biodiversity, I defend Maisons-Laffitte. I was proud to see a former “stagiaire” of mine leading the strike. I suspect that getting rid of ML is someone’s big real estate deal, and if Longchamp aint broke, why fix it? Who will profit? Follow the money.
    (I too depend on France-Galop for my press pass.)
    Mark
    PS. The English language soars to new lyrical heights when Gina Rarick is the writer. One minor disagreement. As one who is trying to visit all 250 French race tracks, I can testify that small country tracks are almost always brimming to capacity with animated crowds. A decade ago, they wanted to close those tracks.

  8. Jenny, what Mark Cramer said about the small tracks is true – those are the only ones that people come to! And while I do agree there are too many of them, most are run by local associations with volunteer help, so I think you’ll find they’re not a drain on France Galop’s budget. Many of them are downright dangerous, but somehow the horses and jockeys survive, for the most part.

    Mark, you are too kind in your praise of my writing skills. Hope to see you at a track somewhere soon.

    Neil, perhaps you’re not wrong about training in Germany – or Spain. You do have to be careful, though, to race only in France, because if you succumb to the temptation to race at home, you’ll be the first to be eliminated in a French race if it is over-subscribed (as all the winter races are). And yes, you lose the transport subsidies. You also would not be subject to France Galop out-of-competition vet controls, which is a bit of a sore spot for those of us in France – not that we get checked, but because horses shipping in don’t. I’ve seen some very bulked up horses coming up from Spain…

    And Private Hollinshead, you’ll have to re-enlist in only two months. I’m counting on you – and your rear gunner!

  9. Gina

    As ever a very well written piece and some good points.

    Absolutely agree with you about the FRBC. I have no idea why this waste of time is still being funded.

    Don’t agree that there are too many Paris racetracks but something has to be done to get people to the tracks. This whole idea of decreasing the entrance fee just belittles the product. I thinkthe Australian idea of bookmakers on course only and atote monopoly off course deserves to be looked at. Punters would then have a big incentive to go racing plus it would produce atmosphere.

    Another idea that could be borrowed from the US and Argentina is to use these large sites to house a casino. This keeps the buildings in use all year round and a healthy slice of the casino take goes back into racing. There is already a casino just down the road from the track at Enghien so it is not so revolutionary. Given the proximity of Paris to Auteuil this could surely be a way of better managing the asset?

    Main fundamental problem as I see it is that racing is considered as a “jeu” and not as a “sport”. Hence not to be found in the sports pages of the newspapers and never ever in L’Equipe. This has built up over decades and I have no idea how the perception can be changed.

    French horse racing has a fabulous product but absolutely no idea of how to sell it.Another sad example is the “international” jumps weekend at Auteuil ( the first weekend in November) which never attracts any international names because it is at the wrong time of the year for the UK and Irish trainers.Much better to make the Grand Steeple in may into an international weekend when you would get a lot more foreign interest.

    Thanks for the thread and see you soon I hope

    Ian

  10. The problem in a nutshell; France Galop lacks people with professional business experience.Suddenly, after 15 years turnover drops and it’s the end of the world; tells you everything.

  11. I’m ignorant of racing in France but enjoyed the rant immensely! One way to recruit owners is to publicize trainers at all levels and let owners go to trainers for help picking a horse. There should be regular write-ups on trainers at all levels in Paris Turf and Equidia. Arlington Park had an excellent series of videos in which they followed several small racing syndicates for a season. One was the horse-rescue group that ran Magna Fortuna, the colt foaled by a mare saved from slaughter. One group lost their horse to claiming, another to injury. In horse racing a lot of the excitement is at the lower levels where more people can participate. As a journalist you could help …
    Here is a link to some episodes of Racehorse:
    http://www.arlingtonpark.com/newsvideosblogs/racehorse-video-series

    I’m sure you could tell France Galop how to fast-track the ownership process but bureaucracy does not welcome what is Not Invented Here. Some tracks in the US have done well with entertainment + night racing to make it an after work place to go.

    When are you getting your discounted stalls at Longchamp? And the new Bistro?

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